…In which you’ll get to ‘meet’ two budgies (not mine) named Perry and Mason!
Links You’ll Want
Carl poked his head through the curtain that marked off the makeshift women’s dressing area. ‘One hour, one hour,’ he called. ‘We let ‘em in in one hour!’
‘All right, all right!’ Alexa yelled. ‘God, that’s annoying,’ she said to Nicole. ‘Don’t you hate it?’
‘It’s not so bad,’ Nicole answered. ‘And Carl’s a nice guy.’ She looked into the stained old mirror and got back to putting on her stage makeup.
‘You’re new here. You’ll get sick of it before long. Here, let me zip you up.’ Alexa stepped behind Nicole and pulled up the zipper of her sea-foam green, spangled leotard.
When Nicole was finished with her makeup, she stood up. ‘Am I put together?’ she asked.
‘You’ll kill ‘em. You done?’ Alexa asked, gesturing towards the mirror.
‘Be my guest. I want to check the ropes and hoop again, anyway.’
‘You shouldn’t be so paranoid,’ Alexa said as she settled herself in front of the mirror. ‘Toby’s good at setting everything up.’
‘Yeah, well, at least you’ll know you and I will be safe up there!’
Alexa cracked a smile as Nicole headed out to the main area of the large tent. She was glad she and the new girl got along. It was hell to work with someone you hated. She turned towards the mirror and started the process of hiding a few years of her age under the greasepaint.
Nicole walked across the dirt-packed floor underneath the red-and-white striped tent. The chairs were set up and the stage looked ready. There was the arial hoop she’d be using, suspended from the roof of the tent. The trapeze bar – that was Alexa’s thing – was looped for the moment around one of the tent’s support poles. Beneath it was the ladder Alexa would use to climb up. Right now, Alexa’s boyfriend, Bo, was on the little platform at the top of the ladder.
‘Hey, Bo,’ Nicole called out as she got closer to the stage. She waved at him as he turned to look her way.
Bo put something in his pocket and then waved back. Nicole stepped onto the stage. As she did, Bo started climbing down the ladder. When he got to the bottom, Nicole asked him, ‘How come you’re doing spot-checks? Where’s Toby?’
‘Thought I’d give him a break.’
Nicole nodded. ‘How’s everything look?’
Nicole nodded again and started going up the ladder. ‘Hey,’ Bo yelled. ‘I just told you everything’s ready.’
‘I know,’ Nicole called back, pausing a short way up. ‘I want to learn some trapeze, so I thought I’d take a few swings.’
‘You don’t want to do that right now. You need to get your head in your own game. Maybe tomorrow. We’re between shows then.’
‘Just one swing won’t hurt anything!’ And she was up to the top of the ladder before Bo could say anything else. She stepped onto the platform and started unwinding the trapeze from the pole.
After a few seconds, she stopped. She looped the bar around the pole again and climbed down the ladder.
‘Change your mind?’ Bo asked.
‘Yeah, I gotta finish getting ready.’ She turned to leave the stage, but she’d only gone a few steps when she felt a hand on her shoulder. She whirled around. ‘Bo, stop. I need to get ready.’
He stared at her. ‘I don’t think so,’ he said. He tightened his grip on her shoulder and started marching her away from the stage.
‘Let me go!’
‘Just shut up!’ With one hand firmly holding Nicole’s upper arm, Bo reached into his pocket and pulled out a knife.
‘Bo, stop!’ This time Nicole yelled the words as loudly as she could. Bo started half-dragging her towards one of the rear tent flaps.
‘I said shut the hell up!’ Bo pushed the knife against Nicole’s back and held onto her arm even more tightly. He didn’t notice the tent flap moving a little. When he and Nicole got to the opening, he pushed on it. Pairs of arms grabbed him from behind and pulled him away from Nicole. She slumped to the ground, breathing hard.
From far away she heard a voice. ‘You OK?’ She nodded without looking up. ‘He cut – he cut –’
‘I know. We got the knife.’ It was Carl’s voice, calm and reassuring. Nicole turned her head to look at him.
‘He frayed the rope. He was going to kill her,’ she said between breaths. ‘Alexa. He was going to kill her.’
‘It’s OK. We’re taking care of it. He won’t hurt anyone. You go sit down for a few minutes.’
‘All right,’ Nicole mumbled.
She stood up and slowly walked back towards the dressing area. She pushed the curtain aside, stumbled towards the chair, and sat down. After a few minutes, she looked up at herself. Her hair had come undone and her outfit needed straightening. She fixed herself up and then took a deep breath. The show must go on, right?
She straightened up and was about to leave when Alexa walked in. Without a word, she hugged Nicole hard. ‘You OK?’ she asked.
‘I will be.’
‘You don’t have to go on, you know. I can tell Carl to give Pinky and Zooey another clown slot.’
‘No, I’ll do it. What about you, though? I mean, how can you go on with that rope?’
‘Don’t worry. Toby moved the trapeze bar to the other side of the stage. We’ll use the rope that’s over there. You stopped Bo before he got to it.’ Alexa hugged Nicole again.
‘Let’s kick some ass and take some names.’
‘Wait a minute.’ Nicole stopped Alexa just as they were ready to leave the dressing area. ‘What about Bo?’
‘What about him?’
‘Carl said something about taking care of him.’
Alexa looked away, and then back at Nicole. ‘Don’t worry about him.’
‘Look, forget about Bo, OK? You’re better off not knowing.’
The two women left the dressing area to get ready for their cues. As they did, they saw a few of the other performers, also getting ready. Alexa gave little nods to some of them, and they nodded back. In a minute, Nicole heard Carl’s voice from the other side of the stage curtain.
‘Ladeez annnnnnd gentlemen! Boys and girls! Get ready for the night of your lives! Tonight you will see daring feats that you have never seen before!’
Eight-year-old Marissa watched the acrobat, her eyes shining. She couldn’t stop staring at that lady up there in the hoop. She was amazing! And more beautiful than a princess. Even her costume was perfect. ‘Mama,’ she said, tugging her mother’s sleeve. ‘When I grow up, I want to do that!’
I am excited and privileged, not to say chuffed, that my story, Customer Service, has been published by Punk Noir Magazine! If you’d like to read it, it’s right here.
You want to have a look around Punk Noir Magazine during your visit. It’s a fabulous source of potent short fiction and interesting non-fiction. G’wan, then…
Some crime fiction authors choose to build suspense by adding what I’ll call a layer of doubt. In this sort of story, a character begins to suspect that another character is a murderer (if it’s a murder mystery) but isn’t entirely sure. And, yet, it seems more and more likely as time goes by. Alfred Hitchock’s Rear Window is a film example.
That small amount of doubt (is the person a killer, or am I the one who’s wrong?) can add a lot of tension to a story. It can also add to character development. Dialogue, too, can be ‘charged up’ with that sort of doubt.
For example, Marie Belloc Lowndes The Lodger is the story of the Buntings. They’ve retired from ‘service,’ and now live quietly in London. But times are not easy, so they’ve decided they’ll need to take in lodgers. Mrs. Bunting, in particular, doesn’t want just any lodger in her home. So, she’s quite careful about the people she considers. Then, the Buntings get a visit from a man who calls himself Mr. Sleuth. He speaks and acts ‘like a gentleman,’ and he seems to be quiet and ‘respectable.’ Besides, he pays well. So, the Buntings rent him a room. He has strange habits, but he pays his rent and doesn’t cause trouble. Besides, there are other things to worry the Buntings. There’s been a recent rash of murders of young women by a killer who calls himself The Avenger. Little by little, and very reluctantly, the Buntings (especially Mrs. Bunting) begin to wonder if their new lodger might actually be The Avenger. That mounting horror as the possibility dawns on the couple adds a great deal of suspense to this story.
In Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders, Hercule Poirot works with the police to find out who has committed a series of murders. Each murder is preceded by a cryptic warning note to Poirot. And an ABC railway guide is found near each body. As you can imagine, the murders make headlines, and people are on the alert. In the meantime, a landlady named Mrs. Marbury has begun to have some questions about her lodger, Mr. Cust. He’s not seemed well lately, and she is worried for his health. Her daughter, Lily, happens to discuss the matter with her ‘young man,’ Tom. At first, they laugh it off as a case of a very eccentric lodger. But little by little, they begin to suspect that he might not be as harmless as it seems. They don’t even want to admit to themselves, but the suspicion is there…
Gail Bowen’s A Killing Spring features her sleuth, academician and political scientist Joanne Kilbourn. In the novel, one of Kilbourn’s colleagues, Reed Gallagher, is murdered. It’s especially difficult because not only is he a colleague, but Kilbourn knows his wife. So, she’s drawn into the case. As she starts to ask questions, she soon finds that there are several suspects. And one of them happens to be her temporary office-mate (and friend) Ed Mariani. At first, she doesn’t imagine that he could be guilty. But little questions come up, and they add to the suspense as Kilbourn tries to find out the truth. It’s even more suspenseful when she actually has a conversation with Marisani about the case.
In Gordon Ferris’ The Hanging Shed, we are introduced to former journalist Douglas Brodie. It’s just after World War II, and Brodie has recently returned to London from the war. He’s trying to get his life back together and start over. Then, he gets a call from an old friend, Hugh ‘Shug’ Donovan. It seems that Donovan has been arrested for the abduction and murder of a young boy, Roy Hutchinson. He says that he is innocent, but he’s already been found guilty, and is likely to be executed. He asks Brodie to help clear his name. At first, Brodie doesn’t know what he can do. Besides, he’s in no hurry to go back to Glasgow, as he had his own reasons for leaving. But Donovan’s an old friend. So, he’s eventually persuaded. Part of the tension in this novel comes from the fact that Brodie doesn’t know for sure that his friend really is innocent. There is evidence against Donovan, and there is the possibility that, despite what he says, he may be guilty.
And then there’s Dwayne Alexander Smith’s Forty Acres. That novel begins as attorney Martin Grey successfully prosecutes a lawsuit against a large corporation, Autostone Industries. It’s not an easy case, as he’s up against Damon Darrell, one of the most successful lawyers in the business. Grey wins the case, and, to his surprise, Darrell not only congratulates him, but invites him and his wife, Anna, for a visit. They accept, and soon meet some of Darrell’s ‘inner circle,’ a group of wealthy and successful blacks At first, Grey is pleased to be welcomed into this very elite group. But soon, Anna begins to have doubts. It’s not that Grey is disrespectful of his wife’s views, but as he sees it, these men and their wives can do a great deal for his career. So, he joins in with them. He slowly begins to have doubts of his own, though, and the tension rises as he accepts an invitation to join them for a weekend of whitewater rafting. Almost as soon as the weekend begins, Grey knows things are not quite as they seem, and the more time goes by, the more doubts he has. And that adds a great deal of tension as we slowly learn what this group is really about.
Having suspicions, but not being sure about it, can add at least as much tension to a story as really knowing that someone is a criminal. And when that tension builds up, it can add much to a plot. It can add a layer of character development, too. So, it’s little wonder we see this in crime fiction as much as we do.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Paul Carrack’s How Long.